Published Jan 09, 2013The war for the Best Film of 2012 continues today with our Documentary picks. Many compelling documentaries were released theatrically in North America throughout 2012 but only a select few could make our year-end Top 10 list.
Exclaim!'s Best Films of 2012: Documentary
10. 5 Broken Cameras
Directed By Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi
Combating the litany of related news footage that has desensitized many throughout the world, directors Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi provide a grim reminder of the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer, documents his village's resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements with the multi-year documentary 5 Broken Cameras. Through the course of the persistent fighting, Burnat goes through five different cameras; each suffering its demise at the hands of the hostilities. The resultant footage is an alarming portrait of a war that appears to have no end in sight and a man that is a testament to perseverance, bravely documenting the plight of his people.
9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Directed By Alison Klayman
After gaining worldwide attention for designing the central stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then protesting the actual games, unapologetic artist Ai Weiwei has pissed off the Chinese government and they're out for vengeance. While Alison Klayman's biopic documentary showcases the artist and his past, the emphasis is on the artist's ability and willingness to stand up against the Communist regime. His relentless, aggressive efforts to uncover government malfeasance lead to his sudden arrest and mysterious 81-day confinement in 2011, underscoring Weiwei's fight for justice and free speech for an entire country, even if it means sacrificing some of his own freedom in the process. In detailing this process and his experiences, Klayman reveals a powerful underdog story about the ongoing dangers of censorship and repression in the modern world.
8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Directed By David Gelb
In a small, clean restaurant located in a busy subway station, Jiro Ono makes sushi. This ordinary-seeming premise is upended almost immediately when you realize that Jiro is an 85-year-old chef who has no interest in retiring and his sushi is perhaps the best in the world. The documentary follows Ono and his eldest son as they work, day in and out, striving for culinary perfection. While Jiro Dreams of Sushi is ostensibly a film about food, it is also an investigation of family, identity and purpose. It grapples with the inescapable role that family plays, for better and for worse, in the construction of the self and in the creation of lifelong expectations. Do we do what we do because we want to or because we think it is expected of us? Can we ever live up to our own expectations, let alone the expectations of our loved ones, particularly if they have extraordinarily high standards? Jiro's humble focus on perfecting his craft—striving for greater and better, one bite at a time—seems a quiet, personal religion that gives contentment and meaning to his life. But it also leaves his offspring with a heavy burden to bear—a legacy so impressive it overshadows all else.
7. Searching for Sugar Man
Directed By Malik Bendjelloul
Seemingly paying homage to a forgotten musical genius with a well-worn documentary formula, Malik Bendjelloul's Searching For Sugar Man initially documents the life of folk rocker Sixto Rodriguez with slick, commercial appeal. But as the exploration of the Bob Dylan-esque folk rocker—who released two incredible albums in the early 1970s only to disappear from the spotlight amidst tales of a gruesome demise—the story veers off into a wild tangent that uncovers a tale of a musician that failed in his home country, yet catapulted to incredible fame in apartheid-era South Africa. It is there that he became the central point of the Afrikaner punk movement, helping lay the groundwork for the anti-apartheid movement. Bendjelloul weaves this mystery together with a tale that quickly becomes a celebration of a musical hero that helped to define a movement that affected the lives of many on the other side of the world without even realizing it.
6. The World Before Her
Directed By Nisha Pahuja
The juxtaposition of conflicting extremist ideologies on the role of women in modern India drives Nisha Pahuja's thoughtful and responsibly balanced documentary, The World Before Her. Rapidly encroaching Westernization of a country with deep-seated religious beliefs that enforce the subjugation of the fairer sex has created a divide: those who find objectification a reasonable trade-off for progress, and those who are brainwashed into regressive traditionalism in the name of preserving their culture. Pahuja depicts these divergent avenues of thought by following both groups of young women participating in the Miss India pageant, as well as attendees of a Hindu extremist camp that trains girls not only to be obedient baby-incubators, but also to handle weapons and be ready to kill in the name of their religion. While most of the beauty pageant contestants come across as much more self-aware than the hypocritical bigots being churned out by the indoctrination camps, each side of the argument make appalling concessions in the interest of their respective ambitions. Between fame-seekers bleaching their skin out of a Westernized ideal of beauty and the casual acceptance of horrific violence as a perfectly reasonable fact of life, The World Before Her is a shocking look at a culture in flux.
Scott A. Gray
5. Gerhard Richter - Painting
Directed By Corinna Belz
Gerhard Richter, the German visual artist known for rejecting the concept that an artist must work within a single visual style, is known for photorealist and abstract works. Often blurring an image or canvas through method of creation or recreation, he projects emotional framework and contemplation onto an image by distorting the falsehood of crispness and clarity. This is why a documentary—a medium known for deconstructing a subject and attempting to apply some sort of subjective truth—on Richter is, in itself, somewhat ironic. But director Corinna Belz isn't interested in presenting a talking heads marathon of theoretical assertion. She merely documents Richter's attempts to create art while being watched by a camera. This, in itself, proves captivating and analytical, raising questions about the nature of art creation and the camera as an object of imposition. How can this accomplished artist ignore the self-consciousness that being documented imposes? Moreover, does this observation then mean that documentary subjects are always performing, in a sense? Gerhard Richter – Painting is not only an insightful look at a complicated artist, but also a challenging look at the documentary format and what "reality" it actually captures.
4. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
Directed By Matthew Akers & Jeff Dupre
(Films We Like)
Functioning as a retrospective of Serbian-born Marina Abramović, Matthew Akers' The Artist is Present shines a light on the performance artist's career dating back to the 1970s. Since much of her work involves nudity and/or physical pain, she's proven a controversial figure, regarded as a heretic by some. The film's primary focus is on Abramović's 2010 show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which acted as a celebration of the artist's past achievements but also featured a new performance piece. Abramović would sit in a chair staring into the faces of those in attendance that dared sit across from her. She did this for a total of 736 hours over the duration of her MOMA show. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is an introspective look at an artist concerned with and intrigued by the physical element that is far too often absent from our world today (taking a moment to slow down and look directly into another person's eyes can be a beautiful thing). Akers' well-constructed documentary also asks the question, "is this art?" and leaves it up to the viewer to decide.
3. The Invisible War
Directed By Kirby Dick
The Invisible War, Kirby Dick's incisive documentary about rape in the military, is easily one of the most infuriating, compelling and emotionally draining films of the year, regardless of genre. In interviewing a cross-section of rape victims, Dick presents what appears to be a growing pandemic in the military, with rape being defined as a "workplace hazard." But beyond just dwelling on the status of victimhood, having women and men describe what it was like to be subjected to a brutally heightened power display while trying to serve their country, this professionally crafted call to alarm examines the guiding ideology and power of the military, exploring why this issue would be so specific to that arena. The answers aren't always simple or flattering, nor are the justifications provided by the military for why the perpetrators of violence are punished with such lenience, if at all. Though a standard doc for the medium, The Invisible War is an important pedagogical tool that needs to be seen and appreciated by as many viewers as possible.
2. Stories We Tell
Directed By Sarah Polley
There are instances in Sarah Polley's revealing and engrossing documentary, Stories We Tell, when she confides through voice-over that she has little clue what her intentions are in making it. As she lays bare the details behind the conception of both the film and herself-- including the revelation that she was born of an affair her mother had with a producer in Montreal-- it's this fascinating process of watching an artist compelled, for reasons unknown, to document her genealogy that truly fascinates. Through interviews with family and friends, she wrestles with the notions of what ties us to one another and how people can become irrevocably intertwined in the fabric of our lives in ways that are subject to differing perceptions. In searching for her own intentions, it's apparent that her efforts may truly be motivated by a desire to better understand the one person no longer around to tell any tales: her mother, Diane, who passed away when Polley was only eleven. There was no call for Polley to provide everyone such unguarded access into her life, but her brave invitation is a transfixing glimpse at the psyche of one of our country's greatest talents.
1. Queen of Versailles
Directed By Lauren Greenfield
Initially, director Lauren Greenfield set out to document David and Jackie Siegel as they put the finishing touches on America's most expensive single-family home, modeled after the Palace of Versailles. Little did she know that her potentially formulaic documentary would take a very sudden turn when the 2008 financial crisis sent the Siegel's fortune into a tailspin, allowing for a rather unusual story to unfold; that of an exceedingly wealthy family thrust on to the same playing field as those of a much lower social status. The result is a snidely cathartic riches-to-rags story peppered with dark humour and absurdist situations. Queen of Versailles showcases a family struggling to function outside of the vacuum of entitlement, suggesting a modern reversion in evolution exposed through American financial hardships.